Cairo is a city of taxi cabs, far more than New York or London. The signature yellow and black of those cities' hired cars are an orderly and frankly boring system compared to the hectic, haphazard way of hailing and paying for a cab in Cairo. Meters left years ago, replaced by a subtle driver-passenger agreement -- sometimes coolly before the ride, sometimes in heated argument after getting out at your destination -- over the usual fares on any given route in this raucous, crowded city.
But taking a cab is also one of this place's great daily undertakings, whether through a snarl of laneless evening traffic or an easy drive across the city's deserted streets on any Friday morning, before the Friday prayers. My older sister, after a visit in November, wished she were out of the East coast and back here just to ride around town again in a Camp David Accords-era Fiat with a driver eager to ask about where you're from, what you think of Egypt, what you're doing here -- all with the requisite "Welcome to Egypt."
Conversations can be riotous, political, hilarious and tame, sometimes all in the same ride. A pedestrian handling of colloquial Arabic, mastered in the daily cab rides to and from the downtown campus of the American University in Cairo last fall, is often enough to make strides in covering the weather (now quite hot, after a spring of sandstorms), the traffic, the good sides of America and Egypt, and always, politics in the shape of aphorisms about George Bush and Hosni Mubarak.
A rough transcription:
Me: "Bush? No, Bush is a problem. Very few Americans like Bush, I don't like Bush. Why? Because he knows nothing about the Middle East."
Driver: "But why did he invade Iraq? Why? Was it really for oil? For Israel?
Questions with hard answers in English are nearly impossible in broken Arabic. It is often expressed simply in a matter of "politics," a word that seems to carry special weight here, not of partisan bickering and confused debates over "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities" as in the States but of the 26-year stronghold on power by Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party.
But before Mubarak there was Anwar Sadat, the nearly unanimous choice among cab drivers for Egypt's best president, not Gamal Abdel Nasser. Many cite Nasser's anti-Israeli and Arabist rhetoric and the subsequent war in 1967 against "the crossing" of the Suez Canal in 1973, the return of the Sinai by the end of the decade, and the low prices of meat and cigarettes, all under Sadat.
Last month, one driver pulled down the neck of his shirt and pulled up the leg of one of his pants to reveal two wounds sustained in the so-called Yom Kippur war.
"I was in Ismailiya for 4 years," he said, showing the long scar on his shin. "Under Sadat, meat was cheap and cigarettes -- Marlboros, American cigarettes -- were 15 piastres. Today, you can barely afford the meat, which gets more expensive every year under Mubarak." He didn't mention the price of American cigarettes -- around 7 Egyptian pounds -- but he was smoking Cleopatra's, the cheap local brand.
"People can't support themselves like this. The future is only worse and worse." Since the early 1980s, after Sadat's assassination, the future was always more Mubarak, now pushing 80 years old, and more of the NDP. Today, the future is his son, Gamal, head of the NDP, groomed to be Egypt's next president, though the government maintains denial.
As I got out of the cab of the 1973 war veteran, he apologized -- "I'm sorry," thinking what he'd said was a rant no foreigner would want to hear.
Of course, I thought just the opposite, and tried saying that I paid him twice the usual five pounds from AUC to Zamalek. It's now another three months before my year in Egypt is wrapped up -- which means three more months of riding in Cairo cabs. Three more months of explaining to drivers that "no, I do not have a wife," while answering a range of questions while asking many of my own.
Oh, and besides what might be swirling around the States, the favorite American president for Egyptians -- using cab drivers as the sample -- is Jimmy Carter. Followed quickly by Bill Clinton, although that comes with a bit of giggling in Arabic (and sayings I don't understand) about him and Monica Lewinksy.